Bike racers were never choirboysby Mat Oxley on 17th April 2018
Just in case you think motorcycle racers used to be different, here’s something I wrote back in 2003
“This is bike racing, not classical music,” opined former 250cc world champion Max Biaggi after Doriano Romboni accused him of dirty tricks on the last lap of the 1994 250cc German Grand Prix.
Pretty obvious, really, because there’s not a half-successful racer in the world who doesn’t get up to some kind of mischief in his quest for glory.
Interestingly, while researching this story I quickly realised that it’s only retired riders who will talk openly about this kind of stuff – the guys who are still racing don’t want to admit what they get up to.
There are many dirty tricks of the track, starting with the standard stuff that everyone does – like gently moving a rival off line when braking into a corner, or easing an opponent away from the grippy line mid-turn. Then there’s the rougher tactics – like shutting the throttle halfway through a corner to force someone into taking drastic avoiding action, thus losing them vital time. And then there’s the serious stuff – like running a rival onto the grass at high speed, or deliberately colliding with them, or hitting their kill switch, or shutting their throttle or punching or kicking them.
Even legends like ‘King’ Kenny Roberts and Mick Doohan happily admit to getting dirty. It’s just what goes on – it’s a war out there. Like it or not, bike racing is a ferocious game of testosterone-charged heavyweight boxing with high-powered engines attached. Maybe it would be cool if it was nice and gentlemanly but that’s not how it works. Even back in the so-called chivalrous days of the 1950s and 1960s there were tales of nefarious happenings, like racers in their pudding-basin helmets spitting at each other during races. And if these revelations make you watch bike racing with a more cynical eye, so be it. If you want peace and love, you’d better go elsewhere.
Roberts wasn’t one of the really bad guys. He insists that he never knocked anyone off when he was doing Grands Prix, but the hard-knocks dirt-track scene in the States was different.
“One time going through a turn I felt this guy’s clutch lever on my right foot, so I just gassed it and flipped him off,” says Roberts, who won a heap of dirt-track crowns before taking the 500cc world title in 1978, 1979 and 1980. “The guy came over after and wanted to know why I’d knocked him down and I said, ‘well, the reason I knocked you down is that you put your clutch lever on my foot’, so he started shouting that I’d knocked him down and I said, ‘yeah, and next time you do that I’ll knock you down again’. You know, it’s just one of the things; if anyone does something like that to you, well, sorry…
Five-time 500cc world champion Doohan, who ruled the late-1990s GP scene with a pitiless talent, was renowned as much for his ruthless aggression as for his awesome skill.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve knocked people off the track but I’ve maybe ‘lifted’ them off the track,” says the Australian. “Like when someone thinks they can go around the outside, you just pick up and modify your line. They’re already committed, so there’s only one place left to go, and that’s normally off the track. I guess it’s a good way to bring cocky people back to earth, just to let them know that it’s not like this is your first race.”
Doohan had a couple of famous run-ins with young Aussie Anthony Gobert during the 1997 500 world championship. Goey had made the mistake of goading Mighty Mick in the press and he paid the price on track.
“As much as everyone thought Goey was so great, he just had no race craft back then,” Doohan recalls. “You’d do quite a clean move on him, then he’d come at you from a different angle, so it was like, ‘hello stupid, try this!’, and the next minute he’d be off the racetrack. Then he’d come in complaining about dirty riding.”
Even former British Superbike champion, Grand Prix podium finisher and all-round nice guy Niall Mackenzie had his moments of malevolence, like during a Snetterton BSB race in 1998, when he rammed Yamaha team-mate Steve Hislop off the track.
“Steve had some kind of effect on me, maybe because he had done something to me earlier in my career, so I had no problem running into him and compromising everyone’s safety,” he says, laughing at the madness of it all, as racers do.
“It was the last lap and I’d considered doing it at the Bomb Hole, but I wasn’t close enough, so I did at the chicane. I just ran into the side of him, we both ran off the track and it cost us first and second, which Rob [McElnea, their team manager] wasn’t too impressed about! I frightened myself thinking about it driving home that night, because if I’d done it at the Bomb Hole we’d have both been in hospital.”
Earlier in his career, Mackenzie remembers competing in the European final of the infamously crazed Yamaha RD350LC Pro-Am series at Hockenheim and dealing with a much-feared French rival in homicidal style.
“The Brits ganged up on this guy,” he remembers. “Me, Ray Swann, Graham Cannell and Kenny Irons decided he was a bit hot, and he was little, so we knew he would be really fast down the long straights, so we took turns bullying him during practice. At Hockenheim you get in a big slipstream thing – you get to the front of the queue, then you get slipstreamed, so every time it was his turn we just ran him off the track.”
This was usually at top speed, so it was no surprise when the Frenchman returned to the pits in tears. He didn’t cause the Brits any problems on race day.
There’s another famous dirty trick that was used frequently in Pro-Am, but works just as well in any other form of bike racing: the front-end chop, which involves drafting past a rival, then pulling in front of him before you are actually in front.
“That still goes on a lot,” explains Mackenzie. “The guy behind has to back off because the rear of the bike is so solid, so when you get a collision, it’s going to be the guy behind who goes down.”
In endurance racing, the funny guys enjoy themselves during the Bol d’Or 24 hour race by hitting the kill switches of rivals as they draft past them down Circuit Paul Ricard’s long Mistral straight. All very amusing, unless there’s another rider just behind.
Everyone used to say that Mackenzie was too nice to be world champion. But what about someone like Loris Capirossi, who won the 1998 250 world title by ramming Aprilia team-mate Tetsuya Harada off the track at the last corner of the last race? Capirossi is just like Mackenzie – sweet as pie off a bike, transmogrified on track. That’s racers for you – it’s a Jekyll & Hyde deal.
“Unless you’ve been a rider you don’t understand the red mist thing,” explains Mackenzie, who reckons the Capirossi collision wasn’t premeditated. “He could see the championship going, so he took a chance, sometimes there’s no time to calculate the consequences. At worst he probably thought they’d collide, run wide and it would be a scramble to the finish line, but the red mist confused his judgement. I don’t think it was a desperate attempt to take out Harada.”
Doohan reckons he was more victim than villain during his career. “I’ve been done by guys who put you off the track even in a straight line,” he says. “They draft past you and when they’re beside you they lean into you and put you on the white line, so you’ve got to shut down, or go on the grass. Wayne Gardner did that to me down the front straight at Phillip Island in 1990, at around 290kmh (180mph). He drafted past and started pushing me over. I had to throw my foot off the inside footpeg, because it was the only way to shift some weight to stop me going off the track. That was pretty blatant. [By the way, Gardner strenuously denies he did any such thing.]
“Luca Cadalora ran me onto the grass coming out of a sixth-gear right-hander at Shah Alam once, just ran up beside me and actually pushed me off the track. I’d never go that far. I’d say Gardner, Cadalora and Biaggi were the three worst guys I raced with. Biaggi even tries to intimidate people on slowdown laps.”
Intimidation is the real deal. These mad stabs aren’t just about winning a position there and then, they’re about establishing a reputation with other riders. If everyone knows you’re a nutter, they’re more likely to get out of your way, so next time you’re on track together, you’re going to have an easier time overtaking them, and they’re going to be warier of overtaking you.
“Intimidation is what it’s all about,” agrees Doohan. “If you do that kind of stuff enough, it gets to the point where people know as soon as they see you: ‘I may as well shut down now because it’s not like he’s going to do me any favours’. Sure, there’s plenty of times I scared the hell out of people, and if they ran off the racetrack that was their problem, but I’ve never intentionally put anyone off the racetrack. It’s just a matter of keeping your position on the track, and perhaps modifying your position from where you’d be if there was no one else there, for no other reason than to intimate other guys and mess with their heads. Luca established his reputation with me by pushing me onto the grass at Shah Alam, so I knew that if I came up on him again, I’d have to pass him fairly swiftly or he might put me in a position I didn’t want to be in.”
Mackenzie again: “You need to establish your reputation from day one. You’ve got to stamp your authority and make everyone believe that you’re not going to back off, because if you do back off, next time they’re not going to let you in. If someone like Troy Bayliss shows you a wheel, you know he’s coming through. And in car racing, Michael Schumacher has definitely got that respect, and he knows that they know he’s there.”
Of course, racers live by the sword and die by the sword – you try and intimidate the other guy, but if he’s bigger and badder than you are, maybe you’ll regret having had a go next time you come across each other.
“You definitely remember who did what to you,” says Roberts. “It’s a highly dangerous sport but you have a zone you’re comfortable with, then you have aggression and then you have anger. So it’s like: ‘I’m not goin’ to give that asshole an inch because he didn’t give me an inch last time’.”
Schumacher was disciplined by Formula 1 bosses for overdoing his king of the track act, but official retribution is rare in bike racing, maybe because squeezing rivals is so routine. Occasionally riders do get nailed, like 125 hard-nut Manuel Poggiali, who was disqualified from May’s Spanish GP for brazenly knocking down fellow teenage headbanger Alex de Angelis. Or perhaps they cop an official reprimand, as did Biaggi after he ran Valentino Rossi onto the dirt as they swept through Suzuka’s Armco-lined 120mph final corner during the 2001 500cc Japanese GP. No doubt Biaggi thought Rossi asked for that one – he shouldn’t have been so naïve as to believe Biaggi would give him the space to run past on the outside. In other words, this is motorcycle racing – you should know you’re not the only maniac on the track.
Following that clash, FIM president Francesco Zerbi wrote an open letter to the pair, “to reproach you both, in order to invite you to more attentively and correctly control your actions and reactions, without taking anything away from your fighting instinct, your desire for victory, your skill, your courage and the sporting qualities that a true champion shows to all the world.” Yeah, right. Ten weeks later Rossi and Biaggi were punching each other’s lights out at the Catalan GP…
Invariably riders get let off the hook because most of the crimes committed on track are so subtle, and because they’re very much a part of bike racing. After all, it’s the ducking and diving, the feints and the parries and the scary moments that make the sport so exciting to watch. For example, what Biaggi did to Rossi at Suzuka is an everyday ploy in tight situations.
“Sometimes you don’t get good drive out of a corner, but you casually use all the track even if you don’t need it,” explains Mackenzie. “You know the guy behind may get a good drive and try to go around your outside, so you use all the track and the kerb, because there’s no way they’re going to want to use the grass.”
Riders use a similar tactic on the way into corners. “You brake a little longer than normal, so the guy behind can’t turn in where he wants to, because you’re still there braking,” says Mackenzie. “You just slow it all down, hit the apex as normal, and the other guy has to file in behind or run off the track.”
Some riders do the same kind of thing mid-corner – just ease off the throttle, so whoever’s following has to back off, run off line and, er, maybe crash.
“I was never really guilty of that,” says Mackenzie. “But I know a lot of people who did do it, Gardner definitely did, and I know [Eddie] Lawson gave him a few warnings, told him the next time he tried it he was going to be in big trouble. I remember Gardner doing it at the last turn at Laguna Seca because it’s so slow. You just get off the throttle and then get back on it, the bike pretty much stops, and the other guy has to pick up. It’s not hugely dangerous but it can cost whoever a lot of time because they get off line and then they’re probably in a too tall a gear. It’s a dirtier tactic, I didn’t use it because I felt like it could cost me time, and it’s definitely risky because the guy could run into you and you’ll both be down. But it’s very effective if it works.”
Shifting rivals off line is even more effective nowadays because road racing has become like dirt track racing with a narrow grippy line, beyond which there’s little grip.
“The thing is that bikes have got a lot more grip now, so you don’t get the variation in lines that you used to,” explains Roberts. “You used to be able to watch at a chicane and say, ‘that guy has got the right line and that guy hasn’t’, but now everyone’s got the same line because they’ve all got so much corner speed. So there’s only one part of the track being used – maybe a metre or a metre and a half – and the rest of the track isn’t so grippy. So it’s like dirt track, where you’ve got the grippy notch. You see a guy coming and you just move out to the edge of the notch, and that leaves them nothing.”
And if that doesn’t work you can let a rival come alongside on the straight and just shut his throttle. Sounds crazy, but the late Kenny Irons [who died in a freak accident at Cadwell in 1988] once did just that to British 250 rival Pete Hubbard at Brands. Hubbard’s bike was quicker, so Irons took his left hand off the handlebar as they approached the finish line and grabbed Hubbard’s right hand, easing the throttle shut.
Mackenzie and Irons were big mates and the Scot remembers the Luton rider’s tactics with great affection. “He did some scary stuff to me, but he always did it with a smile on his face, just for a laugh.”
Motorcycle racers are a lovely bunch of two-faced vicious bastards. Which is why we love them.